The saving of “Bergers white ball”

How the seedlings of a special variety of celery were planted in the soil of Holzminden despite a lack of seasonal workers, and why the recertification of seeds ensures the high quality of Symrise products.

The coronavirus pandemic is hitting German farmers hard. Disrupted supply chains, lack of business, shrinking sales and the lack of seasonal field workers pose a serious problem. For Symrise and its local business partners, this means adapting quickly to the situation – and improvising. Take the case of Heinrich-Mark Severin from Holzminden. He and his wife cultivate the special variety of celeriac called “Bergers white ball” on 13 hectares exclusively for Symrise. And they’ve been doing it for 20 years.

To make it happen this year as well, the seedlings had to be planted in May. This involved 400 to 600 tons of root celery. What to do when the field workers are unavailable for sowing due to travel restrictions? “It was clear to us that this would only work if we pooled our efforts,” says Niklas Püttcher, Buyer Agricultural Products. He got Petra Brychcy, Head of Training and HR Manager, on board. She asked the trainees based in Holzminden for support, and many answered the call.

It was clear to us that we could only do it together.
Niklas Püttcher, Buyer Agricultural Products

On May 20, 50 Symrise trainees met with the Severins to plant approximately one million celery plants. “The helpers set the plants 30 centimeters apart in the ground. At a speed of nearly one kilometer an hour, that’s 192 plants in 60 minutes,” explains farmer Dr. Sinje Kluge-Severin. “With the celery plant wagon, the rows turn out nice and clean.” THE SPECIAL WHITE BALL For the trainees, the deployment was not only a natural way to help but an interesting change of pace: Niklas gave them a lesson on the special characteristics of “Bergers white ball.” “It’s a very old variety that is only used for industrial purposes now,” explains the purchaser of agricultural products. This is due to its appearance – dark specks are characteristic of the variety. “These are known as sugar nodes and play a significant role in its typically intense flavor,” says Niklas. They are also just the thing for Symrise to make juice and concentrate from. However, consumers see the brown spots as blemishes rather than symbols of quality, and they don’t buy Bergers white balls – not fresh, in cans, frozen or in ready-made products. As a result, the food industry isn’t interested. Esther-Corinna Schwarze, Senior Technologist Agro Science, notes the consequences of this: “Bergers white ball has become commercially unattractive for seed producers, and was hard to get.” The German Federal Plant Variety Office didn’t even renew its approval for breeding it.

Cultural value

Approval of the variety is a prerequisite for the commercial sale of agricultural plant and vegetable seeds. Prerequisites for a variety’s approval are its differentiation from other varieties, its homogeneity and stability – which are verified through cultivation in the open or in a greenhouse – and its assignment of a designation that is suitable for registration. In addition, agricultural plant species must have cultivation value. A variety has cultivation value if the characteristics that determine its value can significantly improve plant cultivation, use of the crop, or use of products from the crop, as compared with the comparable approved varieties. Varietal certification is awarded for 10 years. After this term expires, an application can be made for an extension.

When the celery plants grow really well, Holzminden farmer Heinrich-Mark Severin can harvest about 500 tons for Symrise.

The plants are grown from seeds in the greenhouse before they’re brought to the field.

THERE’S NO ALTERNATIVE TO THE VARIETY In previous years, the seedling breeders who work with Symrise still covered their seed requirements with existing stocks from a former seed provider. Then they were gone. But the typically intense flavor of the celery variety is significant for the extract it produces. It is used in more than 125 products, making up more than 400 tons sold per year. “This special celery variety is an important raw ingredient for us and it can’t be replaced easily,” sums up Steffen Grothe, Develop-ment Manager Culinary. “We looked for an alternative for a long time but were unfortunately not successful,” adds Niklas.

It seemed the only remaining solution was quick recertification of the proven variety. Steffen got in contact with Swiss seed producer Sativa, which was a possible supplier. After a number of discussions, the company was prepared to breed the variety again, and to initiate recertification with the help of Symrise. “We’re really happy about this, since it’s not commercially attractive for most producers to make seeds for only about a million plants,” Steffen admits. “We were fortunate to find a small, flexible partner in Saliva that deals not only with new biodynamic vegetable varieties, but with the preservation of traditional varieties, and wants to maintain a diversity of varieties.”

SUCCESSFUL RECERTIFICATION The sale of seeds is strictly regulated, not only in Germany but in the entire European Union, through the seed marketing regulation. “This is meant to protect the consumer by guaranteeing varietal purity, and also to provide the grower with security,” explains Esther-Corinna. “They put a lot of money into breeding new varieties. The idea is to give them the opportunity to get exclusive certification so they can protect their investment for a certain length of time.” This means competitors can’t copy the seeds and sell them.

The seed regulation is meant to protect the consumer and to provide the grower with security.
Esther-Corinna Schwarze, Senior Technologist Agro Science

Esther-Corinna knows the exact requirements for new certification as well as which contacts to make. Contacting the Federal Plant Variety Office was the most important step. The path to new certification was clear. The previous sales authorization could be utilized since there were still seeds that could be used in 2020. This made it possible for a million seedlings to be planted in May. Esther-Corinna, Steffen and Niklas are impressed by the cross-divisional and cross-company collaboration that took place with both the planting campaign and the new certification of the “white ball.” “Cooperation is the key to success, including for projects that could, and will, come up in the future.”

Discover more about the 17 SDGs in the SymPortal:

A million plants had to be divided over 800 hectares.

Masks were also required on the planter.

The planter has devices that regulate accurate spacing and the correct planting depth.

Niklas Püttcher from Symrise (left) and Heinrich-Mark Severin inspect the plants.

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